William R. Wainwright pulled out his old, beat-up, World War II dog tags. He pointed out his name and his religion. And then he put one in his mouth.
This is how they’d send the body of a Soldier home from war, he explained to a group of fourth graders at North Salisbury Elementary School in Salisbury, Md. Putting a fallen Soldier’s dog tag in his mouth, he continued, was the only way to ensure it wouldn’t get lost, that Army officials could be absolutely positive they sent the right Soldier home to a grieving family.
Wainwright, who served as a technician fifth grade in the 1891st Engineer Aviation Battalion, was one of about 37 World War II veterans who agreed to share his experiences on camera for classes of third, fourth and fifth grade students at 11 elementary schools in Wicomico County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Each class of students, all considered gifted and talented students in the school district’s Thinking and Doing program, produced a historical documentary about World War II, complete with a veteran interview, original footage and photos, and examples of Army artifacts, such as a unit patch or a Signal Corps radio.
TAD teacher Kristen Briggs explained that while the unit is taught every three years, they decided to expand the assignment this year, after a Marine veteran who served on Iwo Jima, Frank Baker, told the local newspaper how disappointed he was that today’s generation seemed to know and care so little about Iwo Jim and World War II. (Baker actually participated in the project and died soon after students interviewed him.)
“We shared this with our students when we began the unit, just kind of as a motivation piece, that this is how some of our veterans feel,” said Briggs. “They feel as if we don’t care about their experiences and we don’t care about their stories. This is the purpose of why we’re doing this unit, to show them that we do care, that we are concerned about their stories … and we want to preserve them.
“It just really kind of snowballed … and the kids really just connected with their veterans. To see the connection between the students, hearing their stories, I think that was the most inspirational part of the project, really, the interview, when the students really got to sit with the veteran and to hear their stories. … It really connected with them in a way that regular history in school sometimes doesn’t often connect. That really was touching to them.” The raw interview footage, she added, will be donated to an archives center at Salisbury University and even the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
“It’s pretty cool because I’ve never seen a World War II veteran,” said Osman Yaya, one of the students who worked on Wainwright’s documentary. “Not that many World War II veterans are still living because there’s a lot of them dying daily, so it was nice to be able to interview one and send it to the Library of Congress for everyone to see.”
Wainwright’s unit frequently travelled ahead of the lines, traversing India and China constructing rough, temporary airfields. “Everyone (says they were) the first,” he said, “but as far as my knowledge and according to my records I have here, we were the first convoy to cross the Burma Road. What I’m saying is, from one end to the other. It took us 45 days to cross the Burma Road.”
The Japanese, he remembered, would often bomb a newly constructed runway as soon as the men in his unit finished it, which meant they had to start all over again, grateful, at least, that the Japanese hadn’t bombed them. Wainwright did once find a six-inch-long piece of shrapnel in his sleeping bag, he told the kids, adding that he also has a scar on his leg from being hit with a much smaller piece of shrapnel.
“One of the questions (I asked) was ‘How big was the casualty in your unit?’” said Brandon Owens. “And … he said … there was a bunch of casualties like every time there was an air raid. You had to dig a foxhole because … if there was an air raid that means like they dropped bombs and there was tiny pieces of shrapnel in it and the bombs blew up and pieces of shrapnel went everywhere. … I got surprised when I heard that they used different like bombs … that threw the tiny pieces of shrapnel that were like really sharp because it’s so like – It can damage someone so much and hurt them so bad.”
Wainwright got the assignment, he figures, because the Army knew he was a farm boy who could drive tractors. They must have decided that meant he could drive tanks and heavy trucks that were big enough to haul bulldozers, and not only drive them, but drive them at night on a road that was often little more than a rocky, rough-hewn trail through jungles and mountains. Once he even had to cross a swinging bridge high above a ravine that he wasn’t sure was strong enough to hold his truck, a feat that particularly fascinated Osman and Brandon.
Col. Robert Cook, who wore his old class-A uniform for their interview, equally impressed Alicia Feaster and Cory Phillips, fourth graders at Northwestern Elementary School in nearby Mardela Springs. Much to Cook’s chagrin, he had arrived in Europe as a second lieutenant just as the war was ending. Although he was an infantry officer, Cook ran a truck company for the occupation Army and was actually tasked with developing an Army ski team. He later returned to Germany during the Korean War after the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division was activated, and, as an accomplished skier, travelled to Alaska to help train Soldiers in Artic warfare before serving in peacetime Korea.
There were some funny moments along the way, too: “When he was on the ground,” Corey said, “he got a new air mattress and so he went and set it on the ground and didn’t realize he was in a low ground area and it rained overnight and he floated away from his camp.”
Cook may not have seen combat, but he was still a hero, the kids said. In fact, he earned a Soldiers medal, which is the highest honor a Soldier can receive for valor in a noncombat situation. Cook climbed a “high-tension tower where a linesman had slipped and was hanging in his safety belt, swinging back and forth against a high-voltage transformer,” he said. “His clothes were on fire. Anyway, the people who were supposed to rescue him, emergency people, wouldn’t go up this high-tension. I just got mad and commandeered the ladders and went up there myself. … His burning clothes fell in my eyes so I was blind for awhile.” Cook learned much later that the linesman died about six months after his rescue.
“I think the lesson is to put yourself out for other people and make sure that they have the same rights that you do, to help them whenever they’re in trouble,” said Alicia, adding that Cook “was very fun to interview. It makes me feel happy that we’re able to see all of these veterans because they’re a very important part of our history.”
“It was pretty fun,” agreed Trinity Weaver, a fourth grader at Pemberton Elementary in Salisbury. She interviewed Victor H. Laws, who served in the Signal Corps. “I learned a lot of things that I probably wouldn’t have learned if I didn’t do this. Pretty much what World War II was about, how it was caused and what it was like to be there. … Gathering all the information (was my favorite part) because you get to kind of show the audience a visual of what it was. Like you might not know what a … transmitter was for the Signal Corps. So you like show them a picture of the transmitter so they have an idea of what it looked like.”
Laws, who turned 94 the day the students presented him with the finished documentary, was drafted as a radio operator even though he was already a lawyer. His last rank was technical sergeant, which would have been the equivalent of a sergeant first class. “I frequently did things that got me busted back a stripe or two, so I would have to regear and go on and make up the stripe,” he confessed. After intensely “boring” training in Atlantic City, N.J., he shipped out for England and then France, landing in Normandy on Omaha Beach a month after D-Day.
“I had to do the parts about the Normandy invasion,” said Pedro Rolim, who worked with Trinity on Laws’ documentary. “I had two parts about that, so I had to gather the information about like the beaches. He got there one month after D-Day, so I had to gather information about after, not necessarily on the day. It was fun. I learned the beaches like Juno, Omaha, Gold and Sword. He landed on Omaha so I had to get pictures of Omaha and not necessarily the others. We looked on many websites … and then we started trying to figure out if we had too much, which ones would be where and the best spots for them so he wasn’t talking about Omaha Beach and you had something about a balloon in there or something.” He enjoyed the project so much that he plans to continue studying World War II.
The students asked great questions, Law said. They were very nice, very intelligent, very informed. “I thought it was a very nice thing for them to want to know more about the experiences of my generation.”
That doesn’t always happen, said Cook, echoing Baker’s sentiments, the ones that made the project so meaningful. Based on talking to his own grandchildren, great grandchildren and other young people, Cook explained, “I have found … that they don’t have a high regard for history.
“Our heritage, in my opinion, is not being emphasized enough in the schools. (This was) just an opportunity to let kids know about what the World War II generation did and was. … I just think it’s the right thing to do to preserve a great part of American history.”
“I think they should know the background and the history of that part of the world, our part of the world and what we were involved in,” agreed Wainwright. “Everything wasn’t sweet and roses and we had a lot of setbacks and we had a lot of things we had to do. As I’ve always said, we were not heroes. We just performed the job that we had to do to make this a safer country and to make everybody else safe. It was my duty to do what I could do.”
Editor’s note: Look for a video story featuring interview footage from the documentaries in the media section of Soldiers Live, soon.